Four Random Things

Friday, May 17, 2024

A Friday Hodgepodge

1. From a crowd-sourced collection of business trip mishaps comes the following funny and wise punchline:

PSA that's why you should NEVER keep your key in that hotel envelope with the # written on it. You don't know who is coming to rob or humiliate you. [bold added]
It's Item 10 of 12 if you're pressed for time and want a good laugh.

2. From an interview with Pete Wood, my favorite Arsenal blogger/podcaster, comes the following quote about getting to see them win the title away at Manchester United when he was younger:
We left as Champions. Nothing feels better than sneaking out of an away stadium needing to keep quiet just in case you get in trouble with the locals.
Arsenal have a chance to win the Premier League this weekend, but regardless of the outcome, they have had a remarkable season. Along with having watched All or Nothing: Arsenal ahead of this season, following the entertaining and intelligent commentary by Wood and his friends has made the season all the more enjoyable.

COYG!

3. It was nearly thirty years ago, but it feels like yesterday that, as a poor and recently-divorced graduate student, I fired Bill Gates so I could get real work done on my computer.

Having to battle Windows 11 to do something simple yesterday, I was quite happy and relieved to boot back into Linux.

I was also reminded of a fun tool for people who need a real alternative to today's intrusive, helicopter parent-like operating systems: LibreHunt helps computer users at all knowledge levels, hardware support needs, and interests figure out which of the many flavors of Linux might be best to try.

4. Having recently moved to Louisiana, my father-in-law, who lived there for a long time and shares some of my political views, recommended Huey Long's Louisiana Hayride: The American Rehearsal for Dictatorship 1928-1940 , by Harnett Kane.

I started it recently and give it a mixed but overall positive review so far. Here's a representative excerpt:
Huey Long, Bayou Bolshevik (Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.)
But, you may say, it couldn't happen anywhere but in Louisiana. It could happen in almost any American state. Louisiana was divided. So are many other states -- rural against urban elements, sect against sect, south against north. Louisiana had, and has, illiteracy, want, low health standards. So, too, have other states. The process that succeeded in Louisiana has been tested. As in ancient Rome, as in modern Germany, Italy and Russia, the politicians, playing upon the ingrown prejudices, the deepest needs and aspirations of their people, promised everything, gained power -- and then used that power to multiply taxes, to dig deep into public funds for their own uses, and meanwhile to give back just enough to keep themselves in power.

Louisiana lost much in those twelve years of serfdom. But the period had some partial compensations -- the provision of newer public services, a smoothly functioning administrative system, modernization of facilities. régime The took much, but it also gave something. The democracy that preceded it took less. But it also gave less. [bold added]
The book is well-written and provides lots of historical information. The author knows the state and seems to understand what drove the historical actors, but I think he has blind spots, primarily in the role of ideas in driving history and in economics. (Regarding the latter: Anything a state "gives back" or "improves" is, past a certain point, only an example of robbing or redistributing less, and is likely also an example of the broken window fallacy.)

The noted failings are common enough as to not disqualify a book like this as a valuable or even authoritative account of a historical era. As with many such accounts, I suspect that there are plenty of dots for anyone not blind to those areas to connect on his own.

-- CAV


How to Mine Disappointment

Thursday, May 16, 2024

The hair shirt of self-blame is a poor substitute for actual virtue, or the consequent real growth that trying hard and putting yourself out there can bring. (Image by Fontema, via Wikimedia Commons, license.)
At Bet on It, economist Bryan Caplan reproduces an old Facebook post by Alex Epstein, author of Fossil Future.

It's a short, but valuable and memorable read about a public debate that Epstein painstakingly prepared for -- only for it to be switched on the spot to "two opening statements followed by a biased Q&A by a biased moderator, against a former governor that almost no one knows, in front of a half-filled area."

It is worthwhile seeing the many benefits the energy policy expert nevertheless obtained because he had put in his best effort to prepare for the event he'd expected.

But what's really powerful is that as good as these are, they really only point to a fundamental benefit of doing one's best work:
These benefits would not be nearly as great had I not tried my best in the first place. If I don't try my best I can always revert to: That didn't go well because I didn't try my best. When I try my best and am disappointed, all the learning is about the best version of myself to date. That's a very pure, high-density form of learning. It leads to the most rapid progress. [format edits, bold added]
Epstein is right to note that this is a psychologically vulnerable feeling, but he has just made it clear that accepting the apparent safety of blaming oneself is a fool's bargain.

-- CAV


10,000 Commandments? Is That All?

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Clyde Wayne Crews, known for titling his reports on the regulatory state as 10,000 Commandments takes a look at President Biden's recent flurry of regulatory activity.

One highlight is the President's blatant attempt to sneak in many costly new regulations by doubling the dollar cost criterion at which they will be flagged as "significant:"

Rooted in a Clinton-era executive order which until recently showcased $100 million "economically significant" rules, the S3F1 designation under Biden now instead refers to rules attaining a threshold of $200 million in annual economic effects. Now, lesser rules costing "only" $100 million or deemed significant due to certain other non-cost characteristics can fly under the radar.

This is a "significant" development to coin a term since, in a January 2024 compilation, I inventoried fully 232 S3F1 work-in-process rules in the pre-rule, proposed and final stages. The implication of Biden's threshold change is that there are likely more costly rules in the pipeline below $200 million but above the old $100 million threshold that do not get the attention they deserve. [bold added]
This is in addition to there being an enormous raw number of new rules: At one point, Crews notes that "At the current clip, however, the 2024 Federal Register will top 100,000 pages, taking us closer to [a] million-pages-per-decade..." (!)

A second highlight comes from the unsurprising fact that Biden is trying to "Trump proof" his agenda, should he fail to get reelected. This the President hopes to achieve by ramming the changes through quickly, reflecting the weakness of a law that was supposed to give Congress more control over more onerous regulations:
[T]hings have to align just so to roll back rules using the Congressional Review Act. The CRA has undone fewer than two dozen rules since its enactment in 1996. Most of those occurred under Trump, whose administration overturned too-late Obama rules. Biden's team, who also overturned late-issued Trump deregulatory actions in precisely that fashion, has clearly learned the game and is ensuring that the largest of rules are landing in the Federal Register now to keep them protected from RODs. [bold added]
And finally, we have Crews's recommendation for how to remedy the shortcomings of the CRA:
Image by the United States Federal Government, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
As for the CRA, while it did represent one of the most important affirmations of congressional accountabiltiy for rulemaking, it has never been quite the right tool; that tool will be legislation instead assuring that no major or controversial rule can be effective unless Congress votes to affirm it, as opposed to the current situation requiring Congress to get up on its hind legs to block odious ones. The current version of such a law is called "Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny," or REINS Act; but a better moniker was the predecessor Congressional Responsibility Act, and the acronym could stay the same.
Although I can't imagine either of today's big government parties taking up this idea, it would be better than the alternative of doing nothing, and might buy us more time to lay the cultural groundwork necessary for abolition of the regulatory state to transition from the realm of the pipe dream to something on display in the Overton Window.

-- CAV


Two Million MORE Federal Jobs Under Trump

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

John Stossel offers a rebuttal to the idea that Trump "drained the swamp" even a little bit during his first term:

Image by Florida Memory, via Wikimedia Commons, license.
"He made government bigger," Economist Ed Stringham says in my new video. 'That's going in the wrong direction. Looking through a list of agencies, every single one I could see, there were more employees after his presidency than before."

Trump added almost 2 million jobs to the federal workforce.

He did make some cuts at the State Department, Labor Department, Education Department, and his own office. But total spending under Trump nearly doubled. Some was in response to COVID-19, but billions in extra spending came before.

That spending increased the size of the swamp. New programs filled Washington with more bureaucrats.

Trump launched a $6 billion "Farmers to Families" Food Box Program to bring food from farmers to families.

"Last I checked," jokes Stringham, "we have an industry for that. It's called the supermarket industry. It exists for a reason. Markets are good at getting things from farmer to consumer."
I've noted Trump's spending contribution to "Bidenflation" here before, but had not seen other specific examples of his profligacy mentioned until this column.

Specifically, I did not know about the two million new federal employees he hired.

The welfare state is so big that size can be a proxy for abuse of government -- but only if we remind ourselves of the proper purpose of government, which is the protection of individual rights. We need a government to do that, and it should be no bigger or smaller than necessary for the task.

To the best I can tell, Trump's first term included a few marginal -- and often easily-overturned -- improvements on a few things, while, overall, he governed like a Democrat from a few decades ago, to put it charitably.

When Stossel says Trump "doesn't understand the source of the swamp," he's understating or missing the problem: Expanding the swamp as he did (and threatens to do again if elected) indicates a stupendous degree of ignorance or indifference about the problem.

-- CAV


Ad Hominem Is Dumb, Coming and Going

Monday, May 13, 2024

A couple of headlines this morning reminded me of the logical fallacy named above, which Wikipedia reminds us:

... refers to several types of arguments that are fallacious. Typically this term refers to a rhetorical strategy where the speaker attacks the character, motive, or some other attribute of the person making an argument rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself. This avoids genuine debate by creating a personal attack as a diversion often using a totally irrelevant, but often highly charged attribute of the opponent's character or background. The most common form of this fallacy is "A" makes a claim of "fact," to which "B" asserts that "A" has a personal trait, quality or physical attribute that is repugnant thereby going entirely off-topic, and hence "B" concludes that "A" has their "fact" wrong - without ever addressing the point of the debate. Many contemporary politicians routinely use ad hominem attacks, which can be encapsulated to a derogatory nickname for a political opponent.
The first headline this reminded me of was "Trump: 'Hannibal Lecter Is a Wonderful Man'" at The Hill. Other outlets jumping on the story -- in an attempt to make news out of a word salad/feeble attempt at humor -- added such things as in apparent praise of the cannibal.

I am no fan of Donald Trump, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't advocating cannibalism. Just a hunch.

My quick read of one was that the above impression on my part is correct, and that this is just another of many hysterical reactions by some of the leftish people who let Trump live rent-free in their brains.

I wouldn't put it past Trump to have deliberately done this to provoke such stories so he can go back and smear all such stories as hysterical nonsense, not that Trump hasn't said and done things that merit condemnation.

So -- although with Trump, He did it randomly on a whim is an equally likely explanation -- Trump now has a new example of what he can call Trump derangement syndrome in the news media in order to discount more substantial attacks from opponents, if they ever get serious enough to raise them.

Trump is an awful officeholder, but a grade-A politician: Whether or not he meant to stir up a hornet's nest, he will not waste a good opportunity to recycle this new ad hominem into one for his own use.

People may make outlandish charges in order to discredit what Trump has to say. The fact that they do so does not mean that we should jump to condemn Trump nor does it mean there aren't good reasons to do so.

I don't care what he says: I'm taking a walk today. (Image captured from video by United States Senate, via Wikipedia, public domain.)
The second time I thought of ad hominem was when I spotted a link to the following headline at the tail end of another news item: "Dr. Oz discusses the many benefits of walking."

Having resumed my walking regimen a couple of months ago after our time-consuming interstate move, benefits of walking caught my eye.

And then it landed on Dr. Oz.

Considering my well-founded low opinion of Mehmet Oz as a medical expert, its should be obvious I have no interest in what he might say on the matter. All the same, just because this quack recommends walking doesn't mean it's snake oil.

Realizing that a mindless rejection of walking would be to succumb to that fallacy caused me to make a connection regarding many of Trump's followers, whose approach seems to be trust Trump, regardless of what he says or any past evidence.

While ad hominem is usually used to discount an argument because of who is saying it, it can be useful to consider the perils of making a similar error: Taking the source of an argument (alone) as reason to accept it.

Just because Dr. Oz says walking is beneficial doesn't mean it isn't. And just because someone you might trust claims to have an answer doesn't mean he does. Leftists do this all the time when they treat the advice of government-sanctioned experts like marching orders (See the last pandemic.) and Trumpists are doing the same thing with regard to their orange savior.

To use someone's else's judgement categorically as a guide to action is foolish, and yet accounts for quite a bit of what's going wrong nowadays.

-- CAV


Blog Roundup

Friday, May 10, 2024

A Friday Hodgepodge

1. In "Analyzing the Hamas Sympathizers," Peter Schwartz explains how altruism -- the idea that we owe relief to the needy regardless of why they are needy -- fuels the unjust and puzzling sympathy for Hamas we are seeing today.

Schwartz ends his piece with a quote from someone who has been undeterred by Palestinian barbarism from Day 1:

A New York Times article quotes an Atlanta schoolteacher's Facebook message, shortly after October 7, in which she explains her unqualified backing of the Palestinians against Israel: "The actual history of this situation is NOT COMPLICATED. I will ALWAYS stand beside those with less power. Less wealth, less access and resources and choices. Regardless of the extreme acts of a few militants who were done watching their people slowly die."

This is the consistent implementation of the "tyranny of need."

But there is no reason to accept another's need as a moral claim against you. The only valid moral imperative here is the imperative of justice -- the justice of supporting the innocent and condemning the guilty. And the only way to prevent suffering by the innocent is for Israel to do whatever is necessary to destroy Hamas and for Gaza (and the rest of the Palestinians) to be ruled by a government that recognizes the rights of its own citizens and of its neighbors. [link in original]
Incidentally, tyranny of need Schwartz describes, explains many other aspects of the decades-old conflict between Israel and the "Palestinians," as well as other unjust policies that people accept because they confuse altruism with benevolence.

2. At Thinking Directions, Jean Moroney argues that, while it may be tempting (or even sometimes helpful) to call failure by another name, it is much more powerful to acknowledge it and put it into a broader perspective:
At one point, Jean Moroney suggests finding humor in failure. One might find this image helpful in remembering to do that. (Image by Mick Haupt, via Unsplash, license.)
[S]ometimes, thinking of a failure as a setback is counterproductive. If you review the setback and see no new information revealed, you are likely to conclude "the plan should have worked!" or "I just didn't try hard enough!" Then you will be tempted to just try the same approach, unchanged. They say insanity is trying the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.

This is the moment when you really need the word "failure."

Your plan FAILED! This is REAL! This is new information! Your plan is a plan that leads to FAILURE!

Fully accepting this fact, including the implication that your plan has a fatal flaw in it, is critical to your eventual success. You need to see that you must have made a mistake somewhere. That's what gets you to step back and look for where you made a mistake.
Notice that last sentence: The goal, or some part of it, or something very like it is probably still salvageable. Moroney later explores when a failure is significant, and suggests an approach to goal-setting that can inoculate against some of the more unpleasant conclusions and emotions that many people wrongly associate with failure.

3. At How to Be Profitable and Moral, Jaana Woiceshyn calls for an end to the anti-freedom "equity" agenda:
Canada is a clear illustration. Under the current government since 2015 economic freedom has declined. Investment has been fleeing the country, weakening the dollar, and increasing inflation. Consequently, productivity and economic growth have stagnated and job growth has stalled, keeping wages low and prices high. Not only investments but skilled workers are leaving Canada, most of them for the United Sates, where salaries are much higher (46% higher in the technology sector, according to a recent survey) and taxes lower. Those departing increasingly include recent immigrants disillusioned by the high cost of living, limited job opportunities, and comparatively low salaries. [links omitted]
The fact that people are (currently) fleeing Canada for the United States does not, of course, mean that the same folly will work here.

4. At Value for Value, Harry Binswanger asks questions about a few "Unnoticed Contradictions," among them:
We constantly hear that man can know nothing for certain, that truth is relative to the individual, that observations are "theory-laden" so cannot claim to be objective, that no scientific claim can be proved true, that we can say only it hasn't been refuted by the data so far. At the same time and from the same people, we hear that catastrophic climate change is beyond doubt, that those who question it are "deniers" who should be kicked out of any position of consequence.

How does the same mind hold, "Nothing is certain" and "Climate catastrophe is certain"?
The obviousness of such questions, along with the fact that most will probably not have seen them raised anywhere else should alarm anyone.

-- CAV


Why a Service Animal Racket Vice an Industry?

Thursday, May 09, 2024

Over at Astral Codex Ten, whose author is a mental health professional, is a very interesting description of the unintended consequences of a seemingly benign government regulation.

Let's first consider the intent:

Image by joandcindy, via Wikimedia Commons, license.
Sometimes places ban or restrict animals. For example, an apartment building might not allow dogs. Or an airline might charge you money to transport your cat. But the law requires them to allow service animals, for example guide dogs for the blind. A newer law also requires some of these places to allow emotional support animals, ie animals that help people with mental health problems like depression or anxiety. So for example, if you're depressed, but having your dog nearby makes you feel better, then a landlord has to let you keep your dog in the apartment. Or if you're anxious, but petting your cat calms you down, then an airline has to take your cat free of charge.

Clinically and scientifically, this is great. Many studies show that pets help people with mental health problems. Depressed people really do benefit from a dog who loves them. Anxious people really do feel calmer when they hold a cute kitten.
So far, so good. Who would want to deprive an anxious or depressed person of such an unintrusive and simple aid as having a pet around while they navigate their lives en route to recovery?

I will not beat up the author for failing to ask the following question: What is the best way to help people who actually need emotional support animals? He simply goes with the flow on this one: Like practically everyone else these days, he assumes that the government should decide who gets an emotional support animal. Period. In every single circumstance it might come up.

The American regulatory state has been omnipresent for so long that very few people can even imagine any other way to tackle a problem like this. For most people, the only tool to solve a problem where the needs and desires of different people conflict is to enact a new government regulation.

When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

The hammer here looks reasonable enough: To get your pet into places that might no want it there, all you need is a letter to the effect that you need an emotional support animal from a mental health professional.

But who wields the hammer? Or: What sort of unintended consequences follow?
But the process runs into the same failure mode as Adderall prescriptions: it combines an insistence on gatekeepers with a total lack of interest over whether they actually gatekeep. The end result is a gatekeeping cargo cult, where you have to go through the (expensive, exhausting) motions of asking someone's permission, without the process really filtering out good from bad applicants. And the end result of that is a disguised class system, where anyone rich and savvy enough to engage with the gatekeeping process gets extra rights, but anyone too poor or naive to access it has to play by the normal, punishingly-restrictive rules.

I have no solution to this, I just feel like I incur a little spiritual damage every time I approve somebody's ADHD snake or autism iguana or anorexia pangolin or whatever. [bold added, link omitted]
The problem is named in plain sight within a sample letter from a mill that people who want to carry pets around everywhere can use to get a letter:
[NAME OF TENANT] is my patient, and has been under my care since [DATE]. I am intimately familiar with his/her history and with the functional limitations imposed by his/her disability. He/She meets the definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The three laws named at the end violate the property rights and right to contract of landlords, employers, and businessmen who may not wish to deal with pets brought onto their property by random members of the general public. That is their first sin, and why they shouldn't be on the books in the first place.

A side effect of these laws is that they greatly increase the number of "service animals" people might wish to bring with them to the point that there is a cottage industry of people willing to help people get away with whatever they want -- people with legitimate needs for service animals and people with good reasons not to have pets on their property alike be damned.

Now, we are far from a time when such laws can get repealed, but let's indulge the fantasy and consider how we might solve the problem of, say, a business that wants to accommodate customers who really do need a service animal. Make them, if the owner produces a magical scrap of paper isn't the answer.

Businesses would be free to employ any of the following means from the below non-exhaustive list:
  • Personal judgement by a proprietor on a case-by-case basis;
  • Consulting a mental health professional of its own choosing whenever the matter comes up;
  • Accepting a certificate from an authority of its own choosing as to the safety and suitability of the animal.
Just as there are non-governmental standards bodies for engineers, or for dog breeders, there can be for service animal certification. These private-enterprise solutions work because they protect the ability of the people who use them to make a living in a free market. That is, they align self-interest with quality through the metric of honest profit -- which is surely how, over thousands of years, people have worked out which breeds of dog are best suited to help the blind, and how to train them.

In other words, rather than a cottage industry of con men, we'd have a legitimate industry of people helping make (actual) service animals work well for as many people as possible.

A private certification system would work, because businesses would be free to work with those who don't, say, foist snakes on their customers (as happens now) -- or even simply refuse to do business with people who bring animals to their place of business. The kind of charlatans who operate now would go out of business, and there would be a proper incentive for psychologists whose patients want a letter to give an honest appraisal or a real referral.

As it is now, on top of the widespread violations of rights we have now, observe that some of the people who need these animals can't have them, and some who just want to bring an animal with them everywhere they go get to do this.

-- CAV